Searching for Samuelson’s Rocks – Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Genie Davis April 13, 2012 No Comments


My family and I love driving from our Los Angeles home out to the desert. But even if you’re visiting from far away, taking a drive to the clear blue skies and wide open land of the high and low California deserts so delightfully near the big city, is a special treat. And once you’ve made the drive, well of course you’re going to want to walk. Joshua Tree National Park has many simple loop trails, some paved, that lead to oases and overlooks you and your children will enjoy.

Joshua Tree Samuelson's Rocks Trail

Beginning of the trail to Samuelson's Rocks

On several occasions – beginning when my son was four – we’ve taken a slightly more adventurous trail, and while this might not be for everyone, the walk to Samuelson’s Rocks is easy, flat, and round trip, allowing for plenty of rock exploring and the footsteps of small children, takes about four hours total. Of course, always bring plenty of water, sun screen, and hats for yourself and the little ones. The best times to hike are early morning or late afternoon.


A Desert Treasure Hunt

Samuelson’s rocks are located about a mile and a half from a parking turnout, the turnout that is west of Quail Springs picnic area. You can also park in the Quail Springs lot, and walk back up the road to the turnout, or walk west of the Quail Springs lot to pick up the unmarked “trail.” While there’s a flat sandy road and a sandy wash to follow, you won’t see the rocks themselves until you’re fairly near Smith Water Canyon, where these granite boulders rest. Look up the GPS coordinates online or talk to a park ranger before setting out, but the walk itself is flat and easy, with views of Joshua trees and the craggy hillsides as you go. As you walk, you’ll spy the ruins of an old cabin, and the skeleton of an abandoned car. The warm yellows and browns of the desert yield scattered rocks and cacti, yucca, and if you come in the late spring, wildflower blooms, including ocotillo, along the way. The walk can slow down if your kids, like mine, find a lizard. Once you find the actual boulders, you need to play a version of “I Spy”. You’ll need to look carefully to spot what it is that makes these flat-faced rocks special,  creating a desert treasure hunt.

The kids will love spotting the special stones that are – inscribed. That’s right, out here in the middle of nowhere, you’ll find the work of Swedish pioneer John Samuelson, who carved his philosophy and political views into the rocks, by hand, in the late 1920′s. Some are misspelled, some are quirky, some are beautifully heartfelt. Knowing that these words were hand chiseled into stone so long ago is fascinating, and the kids will love figuring out what he means, and looking for each of the nine carvings.

John Samuelson Carving - Joshua Tree

Our favorite rock carving by John Samuelson

Who Was Samuelson?

John Samuelson started out in Joshua Tree long before it was a national park, working on a ranch and the Hidden Gold Mine near Keys View in the park before setting up his own homestead. Once a shipwrecked sailor, later accused of murder, arrested, escaped, and in hiding, he loved the desert shack he shared with his wife Margaret, but after his arrest, he never returned to the property. Samuelson was interviewed by Perry Mason writer Earle Stanley Gardener who turned his tale into one of his first pieces of sold-fiction. My kids were rapt by this twisted tale.

Despite his lack of command for the English language, he must’ve spent long, long hours carefully carving each letter on these rocks in the middle of the desert. They’re spread out over about a hundred yard range, and scattered among other unmarked stones in a large mound.

Hide and Seek Among the Rocks

My kids loved spreading out – with a parent or older child in tow, of course – to find each of the rocks and figure out the inscriptions. The rocks blend into the landscape, making it a game to spot all of them. Some of them are open for interpretation, some pretty concrete, all of them an amazing insight into perseverance, self-taught reliance, and a period of time long past.

Our favorite rock is one of the easiest to spot, and it reads, including spelling errors, “The rock of faiht and truht. Nature is God. The key to life is contact. Evolution is the Mother and Father of Mankind. Without them we be nothing. John Samuelson. 1927.”

Picnic Time

If you parked in the Quail Springs lot, there are tables waiting for you. Otherwise, make the very short drive back to this location; some tables are shaded. If you’d rather not pack in food, my kids love the Crossroads Café right in the heart of Joshua Tree, and very close to the west entrance to the park. Great sandwiches, a relaxed, friendly, coffee house vibe, and plenty of vegetarian and vegan options. Small children are welcome, and late in the day, you’ll often find a musician or two jamming and a tot twirling to the sounds. With breakfast sold til two pm, and an amazing vegan polenta for my daughter, bringing peanut butter and jelly into the park wasn’t the option I chose. With a banana, orange juice, and honey smoothie in hand – appropriate called “Monkey Business” – the café made a great spot to consider Samuelson’s work, and the fun of trekking down a long-gone dirt road to discover it.

avatarAbout the Author:

Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling.

Tags: , , Reviews, Travel Excursions

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